The majority of your debut novel ‘Stay With Me’ is set in 1980’s, what is it about that time period in Nigeria that you felt your characters should dwell in?
In 1983, a coup put Nigeria under military rule and for the next sixteen years, the country moved from one dictatorship to another. One of the things I find fascinating about that period is that no one imagined that it would take so long for Nigeria to return to democracy. The military ruler in power from 1985 kept unveiling electoral plans that he would then modify and postpone for some reason or the other. He had people hoping and sometimes believing that military rule would soon be over but those hopes were ultimately dashed, over and over again.
I found some parallels between this state of limbo that the Nigerian polity was in and Yejide and Akin’s marriage. For a long time, Yejide keeps hoping and believing that she will get pregnant while Akin thinks that having children will somehow fix the things that are fundamentally wrong with their marriage. When they both get what they want, it’s not quite as they had imagined it would be. It was interesting to put these characters in a time period when the events unfolding in the country mirror the course of own marriage in some ways.
This wasn’t the first time Nigeria would be under military rule, but from the mid-eighties, we entered a period uniquely characterised by attempts to use language and propaganda to legitimise what was an illegitimate and dangerous government. So, with Akin and Yejide, I was also very interested in the ways they would use language to describe their realities and feed their respective insecurities and illusions.
How long had the story been inside you, did you have it mapped out or did the story occasionally surprise you and tell itself?
I began thinking about Yejide and Akin in 2008 but I didn’t start working on the novel until 2010 and it took some five years to shape it into that even resembles the final draft. I spent the first couple of years trying to map things out and control the narrative but that approach only resulted in failed drafts. In retrospect, it’s funny because I’d written several short stories before I started working on the novel and I’d never mapped out any of them. I was so intimidated by the novel form that I believed everything would fall apart if I didn’t make a plan and stick to it.
It wasn’t until I read what I had already written, tried to figure out how the characters wanted to tell their stories, and finally allowed them to lead the way and surprise me at almost every turn that Stay With Me began to evolve into the novel it is now.
The characters just wouldn’t go away. I was an undergraduate in the university when I wrote that story and even after I’d completed it, I’d be walking down the hall in my hostel and think – Yejide was living here when she met Akin. The next day, I might look up a statue erected in honour of students who had died in a protest in the eighties and realise that Akin and Yejide also marched in that protest. It felt as though they were both real people who kept following me around and telling me random things about their lives, so I started taking notes.
Akin and Yejide feel so very real, they are touchable relatable people, how did you form their characters and encourage them to reveal their flaws?
They were always quite real to me. Many times, I felt as if I was bearing witness to events that had actually occurred. I had to write myself into their flaws, particularly with Akin, because he’s so reticent, it took several drafts to get him to actually open up.
As I worked on the novel, it was important to make sure that I saw the world primarily from Yejide and Akin’s perspective so that the plot could unfold in a way that is consistent with their personalities and experiences. Every time I went back to edit, I would delete or rewrite sections I could recognise as narrated in my own voice and bits that did nothing but expound my own opinion about an issue. The truth is that because of their own peculiar circumstances, they weren’t always interested in the things that I cared about. I had to learn to make peace with that in order for them to really come to life on the page.
What three words best sum up Nigeria for you and, and when you aren’t there, what do you miss most?
Indescribable, beautiful and perplexing.
I always miss hearing people speak Yoruba around me. There’s something about how its tonality lends rhythm to the language and the way metaphor is such an integral part of everyday speech that just feeds my mind. When I’m away, though I hardly watch movies, sometimes I play Yoruba movies on You Tube just to hear conversations play out in Yoruba.
Who is your favourite fictional character? What is it about them that speaks to you?
This keeps changing but I continue to find Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved very intriguing. She is such a strong, flawed and complex character. I love the fact that she isn’t put forward as some ‘ideal’ mother figure, she is just herself in a very real and human way. I find it so remarkable that she is a person who is broken yet undeniably strong.
Who has inspired you the most with your writing and why is that?
My mother. She just believes I can be exceptional at pretty much anything I want to do including writing. I don’t usually feel that way so it’s great to have someone who is so sure about my potential.
If you could choose anywhere in the world to sit down and write, where would it be and what would you like to write?
I’d pick a house somewhere in Jos, Nigeria. I would want to write another novel. Though I’ve carried some of the characters around with me for a while now, I don’t know what the novel would be about. Maybe they’ll reveal that while I’m writing it.